Sunday, June 06, 2004


In response to comments on my previous post, I wanted to do a follow-up on my thinking about leadership.
First, I think of Reagan now exactly the same way I thought of him when he was alive -- death doesn't deify someone. He got elected because America blamed Carter for the hostages being held in Iran. And previously, Carter got elected because America was ashamed of Ford, who pardoned Nixon -- and Nixon got elected because America was mad at Johnson and the Democrats over Vietnam.
Actually, looking back on it, the elections of Kennedy, Bush the Elder, and Clinton were the only ones in the last half-century where the candidate was elected primarily on his own merits, not as a reaction to the foul-ups of the previous administration.
But I digress . . . my point is this:
Leaders of countries, however they come into power, absolutely have to understand their leadership role. When they don't, bad things always happen.
The role of an elected leader is to decide what is important and to focus on it. Exerting leadership day-to-day is a balancing act between belief and reality -- the leader has to have goals in which he believes, but also has to adjust to the situation in which he finds himself. This means he sometimes has to jettison a goal if he cannot convince his electorate to support it. The leader must attract and hire people who are smarter than he is, and give them enough authority to do their best work. But he still has to provide enough supervision and direction that they will respect his agenda and not replace it with their own.
Kennedy understood this, and so did Bush the Elder and Clinton. They let their cabinet and military and White House aides do much of the decision-making. But if these people started to swerve off the rails, the president knew enough about each decision that he could step in and get the train back onto the tracks. Perhaps, come to think of it, it was this inherent leadership ability that enabled these men to get elected on their own merits in the first place.
Reagan didn't have it -- he surrounded himself with people who were supposedly smarter than he was, who did all sorts of bad things to enrich themselves and their friends because he wasn't paying attention. Carter didn't have it either -- he didn't trust anyone in Washington, having run as a populist, and so he tried to do everything himself and buried himself in detail. Johnson let the joint chiefs run Vietnam while he focused on doing good for America, but the bad decisions they made on Vietnam ran his presidency into the ground. Nixon was reelected by allowing his aides to develop a culture of dirty tricks, an approach that showed his basic disrespect for the American people -- an attitude which became, ultimately, his downfall. Their stories are instructive.
Bush the Younger is now in trouble because he believed his own press clippings, which told him that he was a moral beacon of light for America but so ignorant of government and foreign affairs that he needed older, supposedly wiser heads to tell him what to do. Well, they did. And what a mess they have made of it. Now, as Joe Klein writes in Time, Bush is too ensnared by his own ideology to accept this or to deal with it. Klein writes "The world might have more confidence in the judgment of this President if he weren't always bathed in the blinding glare of his own certainty."

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